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An A-Z guide to unusual British sayings





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If you’re heading to live in the UK for the first time, then you may optimistically assume that a good grasp of the language is all you need. But, alas, the English language is notoriously difficult to learn, not least because of the myriad of idioms and phrases that simply don’t make sense without local context. What’s more, a phrase that’s common in Edinburgh, for example, might be gobbledygook in London. Want to brush up on your colloquialisms before the plane hits the tarmac? Then read on.

A few sandwiches short of a picnic

This phrase is used up and down the UK to imply that someone lacks common sense. It’s not exactly complimentary so don’t use it liberally unless you’re sure it won’t get back to the person in question…


One that will endear you to the locals, if you’re in the Midlands at least, is “bab”. You know you’ve arrived in Coventry when a woman in the local shop calls you “bab” during every interaction. “Hiya bab”, “thanks bab”, “see you later bab” – this term of endearment may not sound very friendly but around these parts it shows that you’re liked so take it as a compliment.


Heading to Liverpool and your new Scouse mate tells you the local restaurant is “boss”? Then they’re saying it’s great. It’s quite addictive and we bet that in no time you’ll be describing your favourite “chippy” as boss.

Brush up

“To improve or polish something as if by brushing” – brushing up on your English will help you to understand and speak the language better.


British, ahem, cuisine is frowned upon across the world. Known for its stodgy meals that are heavy on potatoes, a meal from the “chippy” is no exception. The term refers to the place that sells that most British of meals, fish and chips. It’s very easy to turn your nose up at now, but once you’ve had your first chippy tea you’ll never look back. It’ll be boss…


Fizzy pop

Used throughout the UK, fizzy pop simply means carbonated drink. You’ll probably want a fizzy pop with your chippy tea.


Right now, most of the phrases on this list may sound like gobbledygook to you. Gobbledygook is the same as gibberish or nonsense. It refers to speech that sounds like nonsense to outsiders.

Howay man

Heading to Newcastle? Then there are a few unique terms that you’ll need to familiarise yourself with. “Howay man” is common parlance to mean, come on. Ready to head to the chippy to pick up your tea? “Howay man, let’s go.”

Hivna Scooby

Heading north of the English border into Scotland you may hear this peculiar phrase. It essentially means, “I have no idea”. So, if you’ve mastered the previous phrases on our list and ask the nearest Scotsman, “Where’s the nearest boss chippy, bab?” He may well respond with, “I hivna scooby” if he doesn’t know!


You’ll know you’re in the UK when someone tells you that they’re “absolutely knackered”. This informal slang word means exhausted and is probably best kept for chatting with your mates, not your future mother-in-law.


If you’ve just invited your new British pal to come for a pint of beer at the local boozer and they can’t come because they “have the lurgy”, it means they’re suffering from cold or flu-like symptoms. Stay away for now, the lurgy usually clears itself up pretty quickly!

woman reading a book


If you had a night out at the theatre planned but missed the bus, forgot your phone, had no cash to get a taxi so missed the first act then you’d be justified in saying that your night had “gone pear-shaped”. It applies to any situation that is far away from what you planned, and not in a good way.


Planning on getting involved in British pub culture when you head to the UK? Knowing what a “round” is guarantees you’ll endear yourself to the locals. The most popular visitors will announce on arrival “it’s my round” and proceed to buy the group a drink. The beauty of getting the “first round” is that everyone else owes you a drink afterwards. Win-win!

Sod’s law

This British saying essentially means that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. You’ll hear a Brit issue this phrase if an event has gone wrong. But, never a nation to be accused of blind optimism, you’ll also hear it before an event. For instance, “I have a job interview tomorrow, sod’s law, the bus will be late and will splash me with water when it finally does arrive!”


This is a rather friendly term for one who’s a bit silly but in an endearing way. You wouldn’t call your arch-rival a “wally”, but you might say it to your young niece when she drops her ice cream down herself.

Wind your neck in 

This phrase is common in the North and Midlands, in particular, and tells someone not to concern themselves with an issue that doesn’t affect them. Basically, say this and you’re telling someone that their opinion isn’t wanted.


“Blimey, after pulling that all-nighter and then having work this morning, I’m absolutely zonked.” This strange-sounding phrase potentially combines the word “conked” with the zzz that denotes sleeping and means utterly exhausted.

The English language is famously difficult to learn. Words change meaning regularly, there are words that are written the same way but pronounced differently and words that are pronounced the same way but have a different meaning depending on their context. Not to mention the fact that there are 50 different words just to describe the rain. It’s unlikely that any textbook will teach you the complete “Queen’s English” but rest assured that the best way to learn is to get out there and speak it. Drop in a few of the phrases you see above, and you’ll convince the locals that you’re a born and bred Brit! Good luck!

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